I was right when I said I didn’t think I’d ever seen this film before, so if for no other reason I enjoyed it simply because to me it was a new John Wayne movie and that’s a real rarity. Luckily it’s also a good film.
Wayne plays a pilot flying for the Air Transport Command during World War II (as did Ernest K. Gann, author of the novel upon which this movie was based). Bad weather forces him to land in the snow-covered Canadian wilderness, far north of any civilization. Wayne and the four members of his crew have to survive the sub-zero weather until search parties can find them, and they have only a little food and a hand-cranked radio with which to send out distress signals.
The action cuts back and forth between the stranded men and the other pilots who are searching for them. There are character actors galore in this movie: Andy Devine, Harry Carey Jr., Bob Steele, Paul Fix, Sean McClory, an impossibly-young James Arness . . . If there had been a tough, wise-cracking dame among them, I would have sworn this was a Howard Hawks movie. Instead it was directed by William Wellman, another master of the hardboiled aviation film.
While this is a good film and I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t put it in the top tier of John Wayne movies. Wayne is okay in it, but it’s not one of his better performances. And the sheer size of the ensemble cast maybe works against it. There are too many characters to keep up with, and while everybody gets a little to do, nobody is on-screen enough to make much of an impression, with the exception of Andy Devine, who doesn’t play his role as comedy relief for a change. According to Leonard Maltin’s introduction on the DVD, this film was overshadowed by THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, another Wayne/Wellman/Gann aviation picture that was released the next year. That’s probably true. I think THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY is a better film. But ISLAND IN THE SKY is well worth watching, too.
Incidentally, among the DVD extras is a short but very nice interview with Harry Carey Jr. Be sure to watch it, too, if you’re checking out ISLAND IN THE SKY.
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